Married to a Murderer: letters as courtship

On the 31st May 2012, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Married to the Moonies which provided a vantage point on the little known, but controversial world of the Unification Church, known to outsiders as the Moonies.  The film followed three British youngsters as they travelled to Korea to take part in one of the movement’s eye-opening mass weddings, where thousands of couples are blessed simultaneously. 

Prior to the ceremony, courtship is highly condensed, with relationships developed across social networking sites and through virtual means such as Skype.  Couples are usually matched by parents, and owing to the desire to marry within the movement, partners can be found in different countries and sometimes do not speak the same languages.  In many instances, couples may meet for the first time days before their wedding, and begin married life separately in different continents until their respective circumstances allow them to live together.    Twenty one year old Reamonn was matched with a girl from Argentina and engaged for 18 months before the cameras followed him to the airport as he met his future bride for the first time.  In an event quite shocking to the outsider, 20-year-old Naomi from south London was matched with her future husband just days before the ceremony.  Furthermore, as pre-marital sexual activity is prohibited by the movement, and frowned upon for 40 days after the ceremony, couples largely conduct their engagements without so much as holding hands or a kiss.

Whilst Married to the Moonies firstly made me think about the scandal of marrying a partner that you’ve never met before, it occurred to me that this kind of activity has been going on under my nose in my field of interest for years.  Media reports have scandalised the cases of many individuals involved in relationships with prisoners, some of whom are incarcerated in maximum security institutions.  Cases where life sentence or death row prisoners are involved have attracted the most attention, such as that of Tim McDonald who married 34-year-old ‘lifer without parole’ Teresa Harris in Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.  The couple have never lived together or had any kind of physical relationship other than what McDonald described as “an airport hug”, and indeed comparisons could be drawn with spouses who work away such as in the Forces or those long distance relationships, such as in the case of the Moonie marriages. 

It is not in scandal of the context that I find commonalities between Moonie- and inside/outside prison-marriages, more so the methods through which the meetings of the individuals occur.  The importance of the letter in creating and maintaining relationships with prisoners was highlighted in the 2005 article by Richard Tewksbury.  Although it is true that inmates can become seriously involved with someone they knew before their imprisonment, there are, however, an increasing number of programmes organised by those such an anti-death penalty groups, or religious and local communities that encourage letter-writing to inmates.  Tewksbury exemplifies as one such organisation, which exists alongside others in the UK like Bridging The Gap (BTG).  Although the focus of these schemes is upon providing a listening ear and link to outside life, relationships have developed.   “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, awaiting execution for a string of brutal murders in California in 1985, married a pen pal in 1996.  In the USA, prisoners can advertise their desire for a pen pal, here exemplified by 56-year-old Adele in Texas:

 I am an orchid in boots and Levis. … Fun lover with morals. Clean mind, mouth and body. I’ll bring you smiles and warmth and a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen to you. … You get this little bit of pure sunshine for a U.S. postage stamp. That’s cheaper than a dinner date. Satisfaction guaranteed or I’ll return your undamaged heart to you.” (ABC News, 2005)

The letter is one of the most tangible connections for the inmate to the outside environment.  Unlike the betrothed couples of the Unification Church, prisoners do not have access to the communications infrastructure that the former find intrinsic to the development of their relationship, due to security reasons.  It seems that prisoners now conduct their condensed courtships in means which were common to the Moonie unifications of the 1970s when the movement first began.  With the UK government providing one free stamp per week, the frequency of these letters can be costly for the inmate in relation to their meagre earnings and therefore sporadic. 

Clearly, the prison environment serves to provide a vantage point for critically engaging with the methods of communication and interaction taken for granted by members of liberal society.  In an age of social networking and intense media interaction, which can often foster strong relationships as demonstrated by the Moonie marriages, the prisoner remains tied to paper and envelope.  


Tewksbury, R. 2005. Personal Ads from Prisoners: Do Inmates Tell the Truth about Themselves, Federal Probation 69 (2) 32-34.


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